This is powerful filmmaking at its prime and in all honesty it feels above me. I loved this film and it put me through the emotional gauntlet so to speak, refusing to fall to any sort of familiar animated convention and yet I don’t know how concisely I can write about it.
Found inside a shining stalk of bamboo by an old bamboo cutter and his wife, a tiny girl grows rapidly into a lovely young lady. The mysterious young princess captures the attention of all who encounter her including Princes and nobleman to children in her village, particularly the eldest boy, Sutemaru. Most of these affections she wards off as her father convinces she and her mother to move to the city where she can become a real princess, after being gifted gold and lavish clothes from the bamboo stalks, believing it to be a message from the heavens. However, she can’t escape her fate and the film grapples with the ideas of family and loss, love and obligation.
It was one of the few films that have rendered me absolutely speechless, too caught up on the emotional high the story left me on, having yet to fully digest the offerings laid to us viewers. This film could be taken a few ways one of which being that follies of parental interference of love, the idea that wealth buys happiness or that true untouched joy isn’t a tangible hope. I see it simply as a love story between Kaguya and the home she loved and where she knew a sense of fulfillment. She never wanted to be a possession, be a beauty that citizens throughout the country longed for or a treasure to be placed atop a pedestal.
The way in which the artistry of the animation intersects is nearly perplexing with its wildly changing landscapes, constantly in flux stages of form and its watercolor influences. The movie’s animation changes with Kaguya’s state of happiness. When she’s kept away from nature, playing the part of the Princess that her father believes will bring her true happiness, the landscapes become emptier. At the beginning when she’s home all that fills the frame is what’s necessary because that’s all that Kaguya needs. When she’s in a fury and racing from the palace after being given her title the colors swirl as her face twists in anger, when she’s depressed the colors are muted and, most affecting, is when she’s at her happiest and the colors become lush and kinetic, moving with her and turning bright with her emotions. The artwork in this film is unlike most animated movies I’ve seen; even compared to director Isao Takahata’s prior works such as Grave of the Fireflies.
This film packs an emotional wallop, one that is subtle and leaves you aching. Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies is a film that’s heartbreak is on the offset, obvious from the first few minutes of the film while you don’t feel the full gravitas of Kaguya until the ending moments when you realize how expansive the journey you’ve taken with the character was. Running over two hours the film earns every moment we watch; every moment of loss, of joy, of young love or of parental guidance is warmly received because these characters and this world are so inviting. Based on Japan’s most famous folktale, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter there’s a sense of lived in poignancy that the film captures.
This was a picture that was long in the making for Takahata and you can tell by the amount of painstaking detail that goes into every frame of the film and the film’s graceful hand drawn pictures only add to it. Such as Hayao Miyazaki’s curtain call (for now) The Wind Rises, The Tale of The Princess Kaguya is a summation of an imaginative career that’s brought out some of viewers truest and most heartfelt emotions. I didn’t realize how attached I’d gotten until you hear the longing in the parent’s voices for their daughter, until the moon spirits arrive and the song about the earth and all its creatures and beasts is sung like an prayer. Takahata’s vision is so steadfast that I never fault the father for over stepping his need to provide or protect and I never long for the story to be changed, no matter the overwhelming sense of melancholia that hits you firmly in the chest. Childhood dreams end, first young loves marry, parents makes mistakes and children grow up and leave home. Seeped in magical realism the story is familiar, exquisitely so.This is a gorgeous, masterful work of art full of wonderment and loss.